There’s a rough edge to Sheelu’s voice as she talks about her life as a sex-worker. “I was at the mercy of clients and their whims. Some would try to burn me with cigarettes, some would get violent and beat me, and some would make weird demands and try to indulge their peculiar fantasies,” says Sheelu (name changed on request).
That’s not all: some clients would refuse to wear a condom no matter how hard she tried to convince them. There was a time she got pregnant and had to abort the foetus. The fear of sexually transmitted diseases and vaginal infections always loomed large. On top of it, there was the soul-crushing label of “whore”. Even after putting up with all this, she was at the mercy of a pimp who would take away half of her earnings as his commission.
Sheelu is a camgirl… Using a high-end smartphone, she solicits customers through the fake accounts she has made on Twitter and Facebook
Sheelu is still technically part of the commercial sex industry, but today she has some measure of control over her life and body, and a much safer work environment.
Sheelu is a camgirl. She lives in a thriving large city in Uttar Pradesh. She is also a single mother, and a graduate.
Globally, “camming”, also known as “adult online entertainment”, is growing ever larger thanks to better technology. A 2013 New York Times article on the camming industry estimated its worth at $1 billion annually. Cindy Gallop, sex-tech pioneer and founder of makelovenotporn.tv, an adult entertainment site that promotes ethical porn, told FactorDaily recently that the sex-tech industry is potentially worth trillions of dollars.
While some cam models, mostly in markets such as the US, Brazil, and Eastern European countries, put up their content on “camming sites”, which get them more views and revenue, in India, the business is still largely unorganised, with women like Sheelu managing their own feeds. This has both advantages and disadvantages: while adult online performers associated with camming sites get more business, the sites also take a sizable chunk of the profits. However, they offer performers the opportunity to start their own businesses, control their content and build their personal brands, and help them develop technical skills such as editing and production.
Sheelu got the idea of becoming a cam girl when one of her customers requested her to serve him via a video call on WhatsApp
Even in India, improvements in broadband speed, quality of built-in webcams on laptops and smartphones, and higher image resolutions have empowered women like Sheelu to learn the technical skills required to start off their own feeds and develop a client base. Sheelu uses Skype, WhatsApp video calling and Facebook videos to interact with clients one-on-one through her laptop and mobile phone. When she was just starting up, she went online and read up advice and tips shared by well-established cam girls active on social sites, and also watched their videos to learn some tricks of the trade.
Sheelu got the idea of becoming a cam girl when one of her customers requested her to serve him via a video call on WhatsApp. She says she was apprehensive at first, but her fears were allayed when the man suggested she cover her face with a veil while performing. She was nervous but gave it a shot because it felt safer and less traumatic than performing an actual, physical sexual act with a stranger.
She went online three months ago and hasn’t looked back since. Using a high-end smartphone, she solicits customers through the fake accounts she has made on Twitter and Facebook. She shares erotic photographs and videos on those accounts along with a description of her services. She said she gets her highest-paying clients through this online marketing. Covering her face with a veil, she does everything the customer asks her to do.
The control her new-found job has given her over her life and her body is something she can’t stop gushing about. “I am very happy doing this as now I don’t have to face customers physically and have them vent out all their frustrations on my body,” says 28-year-old Sheelu.
“I am very happy doing this as now I don’t have to face customers physically and have them vent out all their frustrations on my body” — Sheelu, camgirl
For a 15-minute session, she charges Rs 1,000, while half an hour of her time costs Rs 1,800. She performs only two “shows” a day and makes around Rs 30,000 a month. Also, unlike earlier, now there’s no chance of a client scooting off without paying. She insists on clients paying her before the performance, and she starts her live act only when she receives the payment digitally — either through mobile wallets like Paytm or internet banking.
The safety net that Sheelu’s job as a camgirl has provided her is a step towards rebuilding her life. It’s helping her put together resources and educate herself, as well as take care of her young daughter. Her family had abandoned her for marrying the man she loved, who left her for another woman when she was pregnant with their child. After running out of valuables to mortgage, with piling debts and a mounting need for money to take care of her child, Sheelu ended up becoming a sex worker two-and-a-half years ago.
She was a first-year student of BA when she got married. When she had to take up sex work to make ends meet, she would attend college and then walk the streets.
Sheelu is keen to get out of this job, though. She wants to prepare for competitive exams.
“When the time is right, I will tell my daughter everything about what I did and why I did it,” she says firmly.
Her only concern these days? For all the Paytm money she gets, she can’t figure out how to convert it into cash.
Lead visual: Nikhil Raj
Edited by Shrabonti Bagchi
The ‘Tech Meets Bharat’ series brings to you stories on how technology is impacting and changing lives in hinterland India.
Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and Asif Ali is a Shahjahanpur, UP-based freelance writer. Both are members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.